It seems everyone wants to go viral. I don’t. It seems everyone wants to be trending on social media. I don’t. It seems everyone wants their own hashtag. I don’t.
If I go viral, it’s too late. If I’m trending on social media, there’s nothing left. If I have a hashtag, I’m dead.
What’s the difference between you and me?
I’m Black. I’m a Black woman. I’m a Black woman living in the U.S., a country that has historically shown its contempt for me based solely on the amount of melanin in my skin, the kinks in my hair and the story of my ancestry. Will a police officer’s body cam footage make me go viral? Will my name trend on social media because of one false move? Will I be a hashtag because I’m dead?
These are the kinds of questions that course through otherwise innocuous encounters with police officers.
Black kid in a white neighborhood
I was fortunate to grow up protected. My parents did everything they could to shield me from the hate that so naturally drifted toward me. It wasn’t until I was older, and I personally experienced the hate, that I truly understood. I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, but raised in Louisville, Kentucky. Both southern states have a complex racial history.
One of my earliest memories of witnessing the racial divide is from third grade in Louisville. During the 2008 presidential election, things were tense in my blue city that was and is surrounded by a sea of red. My white mother was volunteering in my classroom, along with a host of other white mothers. They were discussing a new busing proposal that would bring more kids from the predominantly Black and lower-class West End to schools in the East End. One mother voiced her opinion: She didn’t understand why they were bringing “bad little Black kids” to her child’s school. My mother pointed to me and said, “Like her?” The other mother, not realizing my mom was pointing to her own child, continued to talk about how I and the few other Black kids in our class didn’t need to be on her end of town. My mother was furious.
I had my fair share of other uncomfortable encounters while growing up, but for the most part, I was afforded the chance to be a kid — playing with the other neighborhood children, riding bikes, playing kickball. I applied and was accepted to one of the most prestigious high schools in the nation, where I flourished as a student, athlete and person. I went out and partied with my friends. I lived my life, but reality crept in.
When I was in high school, a neighbor posted a video of me on the neighborhood Facebook page. It was me arriving home in my car, and the message warned others to look out for the “young African-American who doesn’t look to be from around here.” Even though I had lived there for years. Even though I was driving my dad’s car. Why don’t I belong?
I am a Black woman in a society where white is the standard. A night in July 2017 made me realize the lies I told myself about how far we had come.
Fear at a traffic light
I was driving home one summer night with the windows down, blasting music when N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police” came up on shuffle. The song, released in 1988, used to piss me off. It had seen a resurgence in 2014 following the killings of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and Eric Garner at the hands of police, but I had never identified with it as an anthem of protest against police brutality. When I was younger, I didn’t understand how a group who actively committed crimes had any right to use such lyrics — to be so angry.
But that night, I decided not to hit skip, and I actually listened to the outcry against police brutality. Suddenly, I felt that my frustrations were recognized.
Song still blaring, I stopped at a red light, and a police officer pulled up beside me. Despite knowing I had done nothing wrong, I panicked. The officer glanced at me, and a series of questions and scenarios sprinted through my head: Should I take my hood down? Can he hear the song I’m playing? Do I turn off the music? Are my hands at 10 and 2? And the list goes on. The light turned green, and he sped away. I sat there. I was so relieved, I cried as the weight of the situation left me but also as a deep-seated pain grew heavier.
I had never felt that level of fear near police officers before. It was a turning point for me. In the following three years, I became more aware of the use of blatantly aggressive force against Black people by police. I started to see the effects of police brutality, and I started to understand how my Blackness could be seen as a threat. In that moment, sitting next to an officer and listening to “Fuck tha Police,” I knew there was a lot that still needed to change. I shouldn’t be afraid of sitting in my car when I am following the law. The song, the climate of police brutality, my growing sense of personal awareness and the reality that my white mother couldn’t always be there to shield me, all heightened my reaction to the situation. Neither I nor anybody else should have to feel how I did.
At 18, I was driving home with two white friends from a party late one weekend night when a police car whipped out behind us. One friend was drunk in the back seat, and I told her to stop acting wildly. Instead, she turned and looked straight out the back window at the officer. I was furious and scared. I pleaded with her to stop drawing attention to us. Meanwhile, I instructed my other friend to get my registration out of the glove box.
Drawing attention to yourself around police officers is just about one of the worst things you can do when DWB (driving while Black). To my worries, my friend responded, “My dad’s in the service, [the cop] won’t do anything to me.” And you know what, she was right. I screamed back at her, almost in tears, “I’m Black! He might shoot me.” The officer followed us until I turned into a predominantly white and upper-class neighborhood in the East End of Louisville.
A gun aimed at me
The next time I had an encounter in my vehicle with a police officer, I was a student at MU. In 2018, I came to Columbia as a track and field athlete and confronted anew situations where my race played a role but was not a factor for white friends and teammates.
I was driving back to the dorms after a get-together. My car sits five people legally, but I had six people in the car, so I acknowledge the infraction. When we were less than a mile from the dorm, one of my passengers said he was about to vomit. I pulled over as quickly as possible and turned on the hazards. Then I saw the red and blue lights pulling up behind us and an officer get out.
Rather than approach my vehicle and ask if we were OK, he drew his gun, yelled at me and shined a flashlight into my eyes. I was terrified. There was a gun pointing at me, and I was blinded by his flashlight. He demanded my license and registration. I complied, but I made sure he knew there were no weapons in the car, and I narrated each move as I slowly reached for the documents. The officer yelled at me, “I don’t need narration. Just hand it to me.” Confused, a teammate who was an international student athlete, looked at me and quickly grabbed the registration and said, “What? It’s not like he’s going to shoot you.” Silently, I thought, but he just might.
After looking over my information, the officer handed everything back and ordered me to go home. His parting comment was that it was a good thing he likes college sports, because everyone in the vehicle was a college athlete. I got back to my dorm and cried myself to sleep that night.
Differences between you and me
I am a law-abiding citizen, but I am significantly more likely to be pulled over for a traffic stop in Louisville, in Columbia and in the U.S. in general because I am Black. According to the 2019 Missouri Vehicle Stops Executive Summary, the disparity index for Black drivers in vehicle stops is 1.78. A disparity index of 1 would mean there’s no disparity. Anything over that indicates an overrepresentation in traffic stops.
Every time I drive back to Missouri for school, my mom reminds me to put my license and registration in my passenger side sun blocker for easy access, and my dad reminds me which parts of southern Indiana and Illinois have heavy highway patrol.
It might be easy to dismiss these anecdotes by calling them irrational fears, by saying I shouldn’t be driving around late at night or that nothing bad really happened. It might be easy to dismiss them because these are experiences most white people will never share. But these incidents are not special to me. They are part of the Black experience. I fear that one day, I won’t be so lucky, and my life will slowly fade out of my body while I choke out the words “I can’t breathe,” or that maybe it will end quickly as bullets pierce my flesh and my blood stains the street.
I write this down, not to shame anyone for whiteness, but rather to highlight profound differences that come with being Black in America. I’m always looking over my shoulder. The feeling of being on guard every moment of every second of your life is tiring, painful and unjust. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else. If these aren’t things you think about daily, ask yourself why.
The truth hurts. My truth is that because of my skin color I am perceived as inherently more of a threat, a danger and a target for violence. White America, by changing your truth and working to educate yourself about the Black struggle, by getting to really know the Black people in your life, by advocating for us with your privilege, and by treating us as brothers and sisters, you begin to change my truth. You harness more power in our country, and I am depending on you far more than I would like to admit.
I don’t want to sit down with my Black child one day and explain how to survive a traffic stop, listen to him or her cry about the hate in our world, explain that their grandpa or their daddy was hurt by the police, and have the same conversations my parents had with me.
In a society where “my identity by itself causes violence,” as Eazy-E says in that polarizing N.W.A song, I can see that we are not too different in 2020 compared to what we were in 1988 when he recorded those words. I need my white friends to acknowledge and use their privilege to uplift me. The battle is no longer simply for equality. I need equity. As a country, we need change, peace, and a justice system that values me the same way it values you.
Olivia Evans is a junior journalism major and a member of the MU track and field team. She is the public relations chair of the Mizzou Black Student Athlete Association.